John Cohen passed away last September the same week as my mother-in-law, Jan Barley. I was too numb from her passing to really reflect on the loss of John. At the end of that same week, I opened my biggest exhibition to date, at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, NC. It all seemed unreal. The state of North Carolina, the state I been living in for 36 years as a wayward New Yorker, was now sponsoring the show, and an all-day series of events celebrating myself and the work. No time to dwell on the good or bad, just enjoy it all while the moment was here. In my speech welcoming everyone to the show, I did not mention Jan, for fear of losing it in front of a rooom full of people. I did however, acknowledge John Cohen, and one moment with John that said it all, for me.
John Cohen was one of those whose work showed me a window that I’ve been trying to dive through ever since. A musician, historian, filmmaker, photographer, teacher. A member of The New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger, John brought new life to the voices of the past. His films, his song catching trips, his photos. All of which captured an America that was changing rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. He took some of the first photos of Bob Dylan, after Bob first arrived in New York. In 1965, Dylan exclaimed on the back of Highway 61 Revisited, “John Cohen, your rooftub has been demolished,” meaning that the person that Cohen had documented that day was now gone. Yet the only person that truly understood that line was Cohen himself, who could continue to quietly change the roofs under which created throughout his own life. To the day he left this place, John Cohen never stopped creating and documenting. No big pronouncements. He just kept going.
The first time I met John, they were holding an exhibition of his work at UNC-Greensboro in 2003. The same magical summer that saw me photographing Johnny Cash, Les Paul, Arthur Lee, and so many others that changed my worldview. John arrived with Alice Gerrard, a famous North Carolina musician that I was thrilled to finally meet. Members of The New Lost City Ramblers and Hazel & Alice playing in an art gallery! This was also the first art opening where I noticed that I was the only one takiing photos. This has happened several times over the years. A famous photographer shows up to exhibit his work, and no one wants to document their arrival. This has at times perplexed me. I understand if people don’t want to take photos of the artwork, especially in our shoot-and-grab age. But for me, these were The Photographers. The people that created this work. They were my Rock Stars. And I wanted to photograph them, like any other Rock Star.
The Moment came with John near the end of this night. I introduced myself, and told him that I was trying to do now what he had done during the 1960s. John looked at me and sighed, "Good luck, man.” That was all John said. It really was all had he to, to be honest. The highs and lows was docmenting what you love, and how little you can get in return. Forget the lack of money, the exhaustive and overwhelming feelings of ambivalence run many from this road within a couple of years. Or it turns others that stay on the path into embittered shells of the dreamers that started the journey. I understand the difficulty of the balancing act more with each passing year. John Cohen understood all of this. His answer was the most honest that I ever got from anyone that has been on this journey. Good luck, man. Amen, brother.
I so wanted to have a friendship with John Cohen. I wanted to talk to him the way I had been trying to talk to his work for years. But I recognized that it was not possible. I was not in his regular orbit. I was not one of his students. I did not work the festivals that he frequented. All I could do when I saw him was say hello, wish him well, and occasionally send him a photo that I’d taken. No need to bug him, even though I could have tried. Do I wish that I could have talked to John the way that his work had spoke to me? That would have taken years. Years that will continue on, just as his work lives on. Sooner or later, that is all we can wish for. The roofs may change, but the work goes on, shining for whoever catches the light. No matter which window you see it through.
March 20, 2020